Not raining but drowning: the true cost of our washout summer

It was meant to be a 'feelgood' summer. Then the rains came. As the great deluge continues, can Britain keep its head above water? Jonathan Brown counts the cost

Jonathan Brown
Tuesday 10 July 2012 13:40

Back in the fabled summer of 1976, Denis Howell had only been in his job as minister for drought for three days when the inevitable happened.

After weeks in which Britain had been slowly sautéed in its flares, while those workers who were not on strike were issued with salt tablets to stop them dehydrating and standpipes were set up in the streets, it began to pour.

No such luck for Caroline Spelman, who is rapidly becoming David Cameron's minister for rain.

The Environment Secretary has been meeting flood victims in the South-west and on Sunday was given a briefing by experts at the Met Office. The outlook was not, and is not, good.

After the wettest June on record, Britain is now on course to challenge the rain-lashed Edwardian summer of 1912 – the year when Scott was beaten to the Antarctic, the Titanic sank and 384.4mm of rain fell to make it the soggiest on record.

However, the good news for Ms Spelman, who has already announced a further £2bn to boost flood defences in the wake of the continuing deluge, is that there is still some way to go before 2012 rivals 1816 – the notorious "year without a summer". Then, before the advent of reliable data, summer frosts and 142 days of near continuous rain between May and September led to hunger and rioting.

It's not as bad as that yet – although, if some longer-term forecasts are to be believed, the current spate of Atlantic lows, ushered in on an unusually southerly jet stream, are expected to keep sweeping over us until the end of the month, doing to the Olympics what they have already done to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

Already, it looks like the monsoon conditions might be dampening more than the Jubilee feelgood factor which the Government had hoped might help us ride out the double-dip recession in a warm glow of national well-being.

The British Retail Consortium yesterday said the four-day jubilee bank holiday weekend blowout helped retailers keep their head above water – but only just. Like-for-like sales during the first half of 2012 grew only 0.8 per cent on the previous year.

While sales of party food, alcohol, televisions and tablet devices were buoyant, traditional summer sellers such as barbecues, gardening equipment, outdoor furniture and summer clothing all suffered.

The one bright point was the continued growth in online sales, which rose 12 per cent as customers chose to stay dry and do their shopping indoors – or simply pass the time as they watched the raindrops roll down their windows. BRC director general Stephen Robertson said: "Sadly the soggy celebrations over the Jubilee weekend itself, which heralded the start of the wettest June on record, were followed by far weaker business for the rest of the month."

By contrast Dunelm, the leading UK specialist homeware retailer, estimated it had benefited to the tune of £8m from the adverse weather during the last quarter, which included the wettest April for more than a hundred years, as consumers chose to concentrate their time and spending power indoors.

The full impact of the monsoon summer will only begin to be seen later this month, with the release of the second quarter's GDP figures, which will take in April and June.

In the meantime, there are indications that key sectors in the economy are being hit. Farmers in Yorkshire estimate they have seen the worst growing conditions for crops in nearly three decades.

Phil Bicknell, chief economist of the National Farmers Union, said harvests could be delayed by up to two weeks and that cold temperatures and low light levels more consistent with February than June could also have an adverse impact on growers.

The full effect of waterlogged fields and delays in silage and haymaking is not yet known. "It is important to look across the country. It can vary from region to region and from crop to crop. But this has been a challenging growing season – although when hasn't it been?" said Mr Bicknell.

Meanwhile, English winemakers, who enjoyed a bumper three million- bottle harvest last year, said the next 10 days would be crucial to the 2012 vintage, with sunshine and warmth urgently required to ripen grapes in southern vineyards.

The cost of flood damage is also likely to be severe. With some parts of the country receiving more than a month's rainfall in a day, there has been widespread damage to property, particularly in the South-west and North-east.

The Association of British insurers (ABI) has estimated the cost of flooding so far in the "low hundreds of millions" although this has yet to come close to 2007 – the third wettest summer on record – when rising waters caused devastation across parts of Yorkshire and Gloucestershire, leaving a bill of £3bn.

"It is too early to be definitive because in some parts of the country the rain is still falling and there seems to be no end in sight," said an ABI spokesman.

Transport has also been severely hit. Last month rail links between England and Scotland were severed when landslides closed both the East and West Coast mainlines. On Friday, services in Yorkshire and the North-west were disrupted by torrential rain, including the service between Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Airport.

Organisers of outdoor events have also been left out of pocket as they have been forced to pull the plug because of rain and waterlogged conditions.

Country shows from Cornwall to Cleveland have been cancelled while the Taste of Edinburgh Festival was also called off as a result of flooding. Although Wimbledon managed to keep to its timetable, other summer sporting schedules have been wrecked putting a financial strain on clubs and venues.

The British Horseracing Authority said 24 flat race meetings had been abandoned since the start of the season – costing the industry an estimated £1.2m.

Spectators were also urged to stay away from the practice round of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone at the weekend because of fears about safety.

Harewood House, near Leeds, was forced to refund 30,000 music fans after it cancelled MFEST, featuring Bob Geldof and Texas, because of weather warnings.

There are also fears about the condition of Hyde Park, which is due to host a number of open-air concerts featuring Madonna and Blur in the run-up to the Olympics. The park was a quagmire after the Wireless Festival.

And while the Olympics and the Jubilee are expected to help visitor numbers to the UK to remain stable, the number of Britons seeking some sunshine is rising.

The Association of British Travel Agents said holiday companies were reporting a 20 per cent increase in foreign searches in June. Online travel agent On the Beach reported a similar rise in sales to continental Europe.

But it is not only humans who have been having a lousy time. The rain coincided with the breeding season in the animal kingdom leading to reports of breeding failures among birds, months and butterflies. It prompted the head of the British Trust for Ornithology to describe it as the worst summer for birds he had experienced.

Winning in the rain: good news for some

Slug pellet producers: B&Q reported a 74 per cent rise as gardeners do battle with a plague of slugs.

Makers of "mood-boosting" supplements: Sales of St John's Wort rose by 115 per cent in June this year compared with June 2011.

Umbrella makers: Timpson Group reported a 47 per cent increase.

Proud car owners: They can begin washing their vehicles again after the last hosepipe bans were lifted.

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